The best way to motivate your kids, according to a behavioral economist

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When it comes to motivation, kids are just mini-adults.
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Gerald Herbert/Ap Images

In some ways, kids are weird non-people, like in the way they blurt out whatever they’re thinking and think a joke is even funnier the twelfth time you tell it.

In other ways, kids are just mini-adults. Motivation is a key example of this similarity: The things that encourage us to perform better at work are the same things that encourage them to do well in school and beyond.

That’s according to Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and the author of the new book on human motivation, “Payoff.” Ariely visited the Business Insider office in November and explained that the best way to motivate kids – or really, anyone – to achieve success is to praise their effort over the outcome.

That means that when your kid studies hard for a spelling test but comes home with a C, you’ll still want to let them know that you recognize and applaud their effort. (You might also want to diagnose what went wrong and see how you can help them improve next time.)

Here’s Ariely:

“Often what we do is we reward or punish the outcome. And we do it in the business world as well: We give people bonuses if what they did was successful, regardless of whether the process was good or bad.”

This strategy, Ariely added, is a mistake. He went on:

“We want to think about: What is the input that people have done? Because, you see, if somebody has a great process and a bad outcome, we want to keep rewarding them because we want a good process.

“If somebody has a terrible process and a good outcome, we don’t want to reward them because they will keep on having a pitiful process. If you do a good process for a long time, eventually you’ll be more successful.”

Ariely’s insights recall research by the psychologist Carol Dweck, who has found that praising effort over talent, especially in kids, can result in greater success. In fact, kids that receive praise for being smart can end up steering clear of challenges later on.

Ariely acknowledged that it can be tempting when you’re talking to your kid (or your employee) to tell them how smart and talented they are. But it’s important to keep in mind the potential long-term outcome of this kind of interaction.

Said Ariely: “It’s true for kids; it’s true for adults. It’s harder to do, which is why we don’t do it. But it it is the right way.”